An exciting new paradigm in mental health professions has begun. Psychotherapy is integrating evidence-based theories from neuroscience relevant to the human quest for a healthy and meaningful life. Knowledge from neuroscience reveals principles that lead to creative, innovative healing practices for the transformation of physical, emotional and spiritual trauma.
When traumatic events occur, major systems in the body shift from states of alive vitality to defensive states of contraction and immobility. Danger and life threat is unconsciously detected by the autonomic nervous system (Porges & Dana, 2018), signaling sympathetic arousal to cells, organs and muscles throughout the body. Within a few moments, the mitochondria, the “powerhouse” of every cell, shifts from wellness to defense (Naviaux, 2018). With this switch, oxygen needed by the cell is now used to defend and the body is bathed in adrenalines and cortisol. Trauma becomes a whole system disability, not just a physical or emotional disorder.
Traumatic reactions are caused by the biological reaction to an injury and not the original injury. (Naviaux, 2018). Unless a traumatic event is met in the first one to three days with healing practices, the biological reaction deepens and becomes a chronic illness, including anxiety and depression. This enduring reaction requires different treatment than the original injury. In fact, we do not need to know the origin of the injury, we need to attend to present moment reactions and work toward regulation of the autonomic nervous system to restore health, vitality and wellness.
The biological reaction of a defensive state, whether it is withdrawal, fight or ‘immobilization with fear’ (Porges & Dana, 2018) has a number of serious consequences. We lose our awareness of our inner world and defend, disembody, dissociate from present moment experiences and intimate relationships. With this biological reaction, we become vulnerable to protracted illnesses (Navaiux, 2018).
Disembodiment results in a loss of awareness of present moment reality. Unresolved emotions from traumatic memories are buried, hidden even from ourselves. The concealed emotion can emerge without warning in panic, chronic illness, anxiety, addiction and inappropriate behavior. When disembodied, perceptions are distorted and we become oblivious to much of what is actually happening. Perception narrows to obsessions as we try to analyze or reason our way to clarity and peace. The ancient wisdom and information from the body, our gut knowledge and heart resonance, vanishes.
Interoception, the ability to read the meaning of internal sensation, lies at the core of embodiment. With interoception, psychotherapists can offer mindful, non-judgmental presence to sensations and, with relational, body-based practices, assist people with trauma to regulate intense emotions. Emotional regulation is not about controlling affect, but about listening for the meaning of the intense biological reactions we call emotions. With interoception, an awakening of body awareness, people with trauma can inquire into their present moment sensations and dissipate unneeded defensive reactions. Embodiment is necessary for a practitioner in order to accurately observe, listen and discern the unconscious dynamics of trauma. Slowly, but surely, people with trauma respond to gentle invitations to gradually embody their lived experience and relinquish defensive reactions.
Embodiment is characterized by a felt sense of grounded aliveness, calm and active presence in the moment with a growing awareness of subtle shifts within the body and from the environment. The fundamental human need for belonging rests on our ability to feels one’s own physical presence. Embodiment allows us to unconsciously process information from our bodies into meaningful knowledge. When people are embodied they express authentic emotion through facial expression, voice, gesture, touch and posture and can receive similar nonverbal communication from another. Their perceptions are marked by open curiosity and interest rather than ruminations and obsessions.
Embodiment offers abundant knowledge and wisdom about our own inner world and the subjective world of others. People living in traditional societies stay embodied and connected to each other for survival, without chronic defensive reactions, providing a baseline for human growth and development (Narvaez, 2014). Ancient practices of embodiment are associated with enhanced emotional and physical health, prosocial relationships and low interpersonal violence. Narvaez (2014) points out that “Western brains are not developing optimally”…without a fundamental sense of embodiment. With embodiment we can enter into somatic ways of knowing and engage the right hemisphere of our brain. Somatic psychotherapy begins with embodied empathy, intuition and expertise in relevant neuroscience.
Embodiment involves an awareness of the felt sense in the present moment and requires a direct encounter with the inner world. This subjective way of knowing can be communicated with the eyes, the tone of voice and subtle movements of the face and body. Embodiment is characterized by a freshness and vitality that generates interest in the listener, allowing words to flow from perception to expression and carry an inherent sense of value and the vital spark of life – an inner sense of spirit.
Habits of disembodiment can be challenging. When therapists encounter resistance to invitations to attend to the inner world, it may be due to the intensity of unresolved emotion in the unconscious realms. The shared, mutual therapeutic work of healing trauma requires deep respect for resistance to embodiment. As we slowly and mutually approach and uncover intense hidden affect with unbearable sensations, our intersubjective relationship makes them bearable. With this opening, embodiment and healing become possible, restoring the fundamental human sense of aliveness and vitality.
Exercises for embodiment are in the appendix of my book:
Stanley, S. (2016) Relational and Body-Based Practices for Healing Trauma: Lifting the Burdens of the Past. Routledge.
Narvaez, D. & Schore, A.N. (2014) Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) 1st Edition
Naviaux, R K (2018) Metabolic features and regulation of the healing cycle – A new model for chronic disease pathogenesis and treatment. Mitochondrion – on-line 9 August 2018 (In press)
Porges, S. & Dana, D. (2018). Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) 1st Edition